The recent “neuro-revolution” in poetics has tended to replicate the privilege granted to cognition over affect in other areas of neuroscience. What is most important, from this perspective, is the prefrontal cortex and its attendant brain systems: those most linked to tertiary processes, the “higher” forms of reasoning that are unique to the human brain, the kind of meta-critical capacity that distinguishes us from our dogs and dolphins, elephants and apes.Research in neuroscience has been guilty of the same biases until recently. The term cognitive neuroscience was often taken to describe all brain processes, as if all brain processes were cognitive, primarily because of the assumption that emotion is regulated by cognition and that cognitive processes occur first, structuring the emotion in fundamental ways. “Cognitive gating mechanisms” were seen to inhibit emotion and determine its expression, thus representing emotion as raw material that is only given its form through cognitive processing—emotions are viewed in cognitive terms.
This is called a “top down” model of information processing. However, the most recent advances in neuroscience tell a different story, one that makes a convincing argument for a “bottoms up” model, and one that has wide implications for poetics and the value we have granted to the cognitive over the affective. Any such attempt to purge affect and narrative is doomed to failure, since it ignores the indissociable relation between affect and cognition, emotion and reason, biology and culture, the brain and the mind. As current neuroscience has spelled out in some detail in its theories of “functional connectivity,” the one is not possible without the other.[i]
Instead, “brain-behavior processes” are the products of interaction effects between each, neural circuits that include the control functions of the primary process emotional states themselves. In fact, recent advances in affective neuroscience argue for “more realistic models that incorporate dynamic properties and bidirectional interactive multi-way communications.”[ii] Instead of occurring through a top-down hierarchy in which cognition occurs first and is the controlling mechanism, neural activity has recently been shown to occur bidirectionally in multiple regions. Furthermore, as the phylogentically oldest part of our brains, the affective systems are most linked to fundamental survival mechanisms that “provide a necessary foundation for higher functions to operate” (Cromwell and Panksepp 2032).
Crucially, these are the systems shared across all mammalian brains, and point to an affective experiential universality across all mammalian species, including humans. From a neuroevolutionary perspective, the affective remains fundamental. It is not a matter of cognition always generating a behavioral response, for instance, such as reader response. In fact, quite often, it is the more fundamental processes that inform behavior, those “from the gut” responses linked to the embodied, “so powerful it gives me the chills” effect in aesthetic response—a response in the autonomic nervous system triggered by adrenaline.
With this new information, it’s time to examine the interaction effects, the feedback loops between affect and cognition in poetics. An affective neuropoetics would, like Jaak Panksepp’s affective neuroscience, proceed from the bottom up, locating the roots of our motivations and aesthetic response in the primary affective processes.
A wonderful example of what I am talking about is Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “Watching the Pelican Die,” first published in Prairie Schooner and forthcoming in The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ Books. 2013). The embodiment of what I have posited here as a site of the interactions between the affective and the cognitive, the poem enacts what, in her own aesthetic theory, Gillan has termed the dialogue between “the cave” and “the crow,” which are the metaphorical representations of affect and cognition.[iii] For Gillan, the privilege historically granted “the crow”—the social discourses and systems of valuation associated with scientific rationalism, tertiary process cognition, and the masculine—has served to devalue the embodied, the feminine, and the emotional that represents “the cave”—precisely those primary process affects that Panksepp has empirically situated as the very basis of and possibility for the cognitive. The “cave” in Gillan is the equivalent to affective brain processes in Panksepp, and is similarly fundamental:
Watching the Pelican Die
On TV, I watch the pelican with its mouth wide open,
its wings and body coated with oil. Is it screaming? I do not hear
the sound and since this is a photograph, I don’t know if it was caught
in that mouth-stretched howl when it died or if it’s howling
in recognition that it cannot survive the thick coat
of oil that bears it down.
The ladies who take care of you when I’m gone tell me you
are having trouble. “His hands,” they say, “his hands.” When I
come home, I see that your hands have turned black
at the tips and I see that the ends of your fingers
have been eaten away. I watch the dead bird in the Gulf
floating on top of the water, its legs stiff and straight in the air,
its body drained of all motion, all light.
The next day I take you to the doctor; he tells us he will have
to operate to remove the gangrenous flesh.
The announcer on CNN says BP didn’t want the photographer
to take pictures of the dying birds covered as they are
with the black slick of oil. “They were hoping,” he says,
“that the birds would sink and the evidence
would be swallowed by the ocean.”
In the late afternoon, I hear my daughter cry out. I rush to see
what has happened, and you are stretched out on the bed,
your body so thin you look like a boy. You do not move.
I call 911 and the ambulance takes you to the hospital.
BP is trying to put a cap on the spewing oil rig; the CEO
keeps saying, it’s no problem. Clumps of oil wash ashore
and float on the surface of the water. The beach is littered
with dead fish and birds.
At the hospital, they want to know whether we want
extraordinary measures. “No,” I say. “He has a living will.”
We hover around while they admit you. You have forgotten
how to speak. Mostly you lie in bed, staring into a space
above our heads.
In my mind I see that screaming bird, its mouth wide open,
a picture of torment and despair.
I reach out to hold your hand, stroke your forehead. “Dennis,”
I call out, “Dennis.” You do not hear me. The doctor comes in
to see you. “Well,” he says, “he should have been dead five years
ago. What did you expect? You shouldn’t have taken such
good care of him.”
“We did everything we could,” the BP president says, looking
directly at the camera. “It’s not such a calamity,” says
the governor of Louisiana. “We don’t need to stop
deep water drilling. Our economy will collapse if we do.”
We stand around your hospital bed. My brother comes in
and says he’ll try a stronger antibiotic. “It’s bad,” he says,
but he waits until we are in the hall to tell me.
The social worker says, “You should put him in a nursing
home.” My brother says, “You kept him home all this time.
If he gets a little stronger, I’ll let him go home and he’ll be
around the things he knows.”
The doctor comes in and says, “He’s not going to make it.”
The social worker admonishes us with her bag
of common sense. She does not love you. We take you home.
I sit next to you and hold your hand.
The MSNBC reporter stands on the beach in a hurricane
and picks up a huge glob of oil with a stick. “Look,” she says,
“look,” and drips the oil on the white sand. She is shaking
with fury at such destruction. Dead birds float behind her.
“I’m in so much pain,” you say, though you have not complained
before. Althea feeds you a jar of baby applesauce. You open
your mouth and accept the food. When I see the pelican
on TV with its mouth wide open in horror, I remember you
as you lay dying. On the Gulf, the earth and the sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought
against this illness with such courage, even you
cannot survive, the blackened tips of your fingers, the oil
heavy on the birds feathers, the birds dead and floating on
the surface that gradually sink and disappear.
Astonishing in the depth of its representation of the levels of brain processing, “Watching the Pelican Die” moves from affect to emotion to memory to cognition and back down the chain, establishing the affective basis for human behavior and relations and showing how cognition, when detached from the other levels of processing, can be responsible for destroying the very things it relies upon most—the basic attachment mechanisms of relationships (Panksepp’s “CARE” system), on the one hand, and the biology of ecology, and the relationship between the basic levels of the ecosystem, on the other. The movement in the poem between the grief the narrator experiences (the basic affective system that Panksepp terms Panic/Grief) and the ways that grief resonates throughout the larger cultural landscape of destruction and loss is a quintessential example of a narrative poetics that embodies and demonstrates the principles of affective neuroscience. In Gillan’s poem we have one of the most bidirectional representations of the relationship between affect and cognition, the cave and the crow, that I’ve seen in contemporary poetry. As Gillan puts it, “poems hide in a place deep inside you that I call the cave . . . In the cave are all your memories . . . Every person you’ve ever known or loved or hated everything you are afraid of in the world and in yourself. In the cave is your rage and your fury and your passion” (Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, 13). In neuroscientific terms, Gillan’s “cave” is affect, the primary process affective brain systems that underlie secondary processes like memory and cultural learning. Affect is the bedrock poets draw upon, and it is informed by the reactions in the ANS & CNS that neuroscientist Stephen Porges, in his "Polyvagal Theory," calls “neuroception.”
Tomorrow I will discuss the seven basic affective systems in further detail, especially as they are instantiated in the work of the poet Joe Weil. Later posts will explore Polyvagal Theory, its concept of “neuroception” and the vagal ventral complex that links the heart, face, and brain. Using this work from affective neuroscience, I will discuss the movement from neurophysiology to affect to aesthetics by way of Panksepp’s seven affective systems in conjunction with the Polyvagal Theory and its implications for memory and how creative writers use it via the work of poets Gary Soto, Bruce Snider, Jack Bedell, Vivian Shipley, and James Reese. The work of all these poets and the affective neuroscience that helps explain their aesthetic projects will be linked to the need for narrative poetics, and narrative as one of our most interactive, bidirectional brain processes.
[i] Howard Casey Cromwell and Jaak Panksepp, “Rethinking the cognitive revolution from a neural perspective: How overuse/misuse of the term `cognition’ and the neglect of affective controls in behavior neuroscience could be delaying progress in understanding the BrainMind,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35 (2011): 2026-2035.
[ii] Cromwell and Panksepp, p. 2031.
[iii] See Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Writing Poetry to Save Your Life (Miroland/Guernica, 2013).